You can’t help noticing the thin line between hero and bad boy in American culture from the get-go. It’s not just anti-heroes like the fictional Hancock and mostly-non-fictional Hunter S. Thompson, about whom there are movies out this week (I already know the first is good). It’s also the fact that we were quite literally rebels from the get-go: becoming, in rough chronological order, economic opportunists, religious dissidents, religious fanatics, farmers beholden to no aristocrats, revolutionaries, wild frontiersmen, abolitionists, laissez-faire capitalists, cowboys, pop stars, mad scientists, and even would-be global democratizers.
Today is July 4, 2008 and a good time to recall that America is bigger than right and left (weird dialectical categories imported from that troubled, slower-moving continent called Europe). America is perhaps still in need of a coherent philosophy, speaking to the rebel and the bourgeois in each American, without unnecessary tension but also without oversimplification. I’ll mull that in sight of the Statue of Liberty today while (1) listening to the Feelies and Sonic Youth in concert, (2) carrying a copy of the Constitution (complete with the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation) that Avery Knapp gave me before he left New York City, and (3) vowing to get back to work on my long-delayed book, Conservatism for Punks (forgive me if I largely disappear in a couple weeks for a while, like a black-clad vigilante millionaire in the night, if you will).
The need for the book — or at least for some articulation of a philosophy fit for America — was increasingly apparent in early 2006, as successive failures by Bush and the Republican Congress made it apparent that they were better at behaving like an inept, corrupt Establishment than at promoting individualism and freedom, at home or abroad (not that this makes the left look any more appealing — we may simply be trapped between two armies of thugs…for now).
Two years ago, even right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson, sounding increasingly libertarian, was predicting electoral doom for the Republicans, wisely noting that Americans can be forgiving of both hard times and policy errors but not the vague, scandal-induced sense that, as he put it, the politicians are up on the Hill playing poker with the public’s money while the world is falling apart (and, as the catchphrase put it, spending like drunken sailors).
I think the aforementioned Hunter S. Thompson would have appreciated that analysis (especially the gambling reference), as would most writers following in his gonzo-journalist footsteps, such as libertarian-conservative P.J. O’Rourke and some of the people around me at New York Press back in the mid-90s (the Village Voice once called NYPress a bunch of “P.J. O’Rourke wannabes”). Cynics, libertarians, and Mencken-style conservatives tend not to be surprised when corruption and absurdity win out, which is a very different attitude from waving the flag, hoping the government behaves well, and trusting God to guide things to a safe conclusion.
I was always more gonzo than pious flag-waver — and will smile all the more happily at tonight’s fireworks down near Battery Park because of it, knowing full well things could have worked out even more insanely for this society than they have. Incidentally, though I’ve definitely mellowed into more of a Kermit type, my favorite Muppet in childhood was Gonzo, and my parents even called me Toddzo at times.
My parents also read Tom Swift books to me, an early education (in the form of the adventures of a teen inventor-industrialist) in the wonders — and optimism — made possible by science, capitalism, good friends, a solid family, and the desire to fight communist spies. Without these books, many in my generation were destined to grow up directionless, irrational, and amoral. And in January 2006, in Guilford, CT, I got to see two granddaughters of the creator of Tom Swift present their story of growing up in that literary family — and now constantly fending off the Tom Swift ghostwriters who want their share of the glory all these decades later, perhaps exaggerating the extent of their input in what were, after all, very formulaic tales dictated by the editors.
As for me, I now go in for far more sophisticated fare, of course, though perhaps you wouldn’t know it from nights like one in February of 2006, when my friend Scott Nybakken and I went to the apartment of my high school pal Chuck Blake — now moved to New York City to apply his math and computer skills to the financial sector — to rewatch the first Underworld movie and then immediately exit the apartment to see the sequel in the theatre. Teen inventors are fine for kids, but adults need vampires in skintight leather catsuits.
Adults also sometimes need to dress up like Guy Fawkes, and early 2006 not only saw the release of the V for Vendetta movie but found me marking the occasion by writing about anarchism for the Wall Street Journal — in part to underscore the marvelous historical fact that the first book-length defense of anarchism was written by none other than…Edmund Burke, more often thought of as the first modern (eighteenth-century, that is) defender of conservatism. The two philosophies were joined at the hip from birth, in short, though few people today see it that way (certainly not your average Wall Street Journal reader — or editor).
Shortly thereafter, I’d lead a protest outside DC Comics’ offices in defense of the film, complete with V masks supplied by Warner publicity worker Nicole Beaver (now Nicole Partowidjojo) and the participation of longtime libertarian activist Andrea Millen-Rich and the aforementioned Chuck, not to mention innocent-bystander comics professionals Scott Nybakken and Ali Kokmen, facing off against ornery left-anarchists also sporting V masks.
This was not some corporate stunt by DC, though, I swear, but rather a spontaneous reaction on my part to news that left-anarchists (as opposed to anarcho-capitalists like myself) led by “freegan” (i.e., principled, waste-hating eater of garbage from dumpsters) Adam Weissman were going to be protesting against the movie, insisting that the Wachowskis hadn’t made the film as anarchist as the original Alan Moore comic book (a position with which Moore happens to agree, but I’ll protest him, too, if it comes to that, and I just hope the Wachowskis will be there to back me up with what I assume are their considerable marital arts and bullet-dodging skills).
Even the involvement of the future Mrs. Partowidjojo was less a corporate ploy than a result of us knowing each other via Reid Mihalko and Marcia Baczynski, who are the kind of people who go to Burning Man (along with the multi-talented Marah Rosenberg and a growing list of other people I know) and who like to see their friends staging anarchist protests. As for Reid and Marcia themselves, they were getting increasing publicity for founding CuddleParty, appearing on Montel that same half-year to discuss the advantages of cuddling with a roomful of strangers in a safe and non-sexual environment. I’ve still never gone to one of the things — nor to Burning Man — but I admire their entrepreneurship.
Another amusing blend of film and reality that half-year saw my friends Liz Braswell and Scott Shannon throw a baby shower featuring a screening of Alien and a cake with a recreation of the chest-burster scene on it. Way back when Liz and I were at Brown writing for the Film Bulletin, I’d begun comparing childbirth to that scene when explaining the many reasons I don’t want kids — and the joke eventually found its way into Kyle Smith’s novel Love Monkey, which became a short-lived but not half-bad sitcom in early 2006. Interestingly, the subtle difference in tone between book and novel — a shift, I thought, from bemused/nerdy to ladder-climbing/hipster — may have been the first time I noticed that the twentysomethings these days and the culture-products aimed at them are starting to seem a bit more driven and vicious or something than my slacker X-cohort, one more reason we’ll fade largely unnoticed (and demographically minute) into history.
As if the anarchist protest weren’t proof enough that my America is bigger than any one political party or congressional election result, that half-year also found me in Vegas to talk on a panel about science, economics, and the philosophical limits of extrapolation from evolutionary psychology, if you can believe that, thanks to Gerry Ohrstrom and the Association of Private Enterprise Education — and thanks once more to my ongoing use of the research of mine that the Phillips Foundation had funded nine years earlier. As of today, in 2008, I’ve been to Vegas three times, if I remember correctly, and never for the gambling. But even with all the people who are drawn there by a complete inability to calculate probability, you have to sort of love the place. Like the Statue of Liberty, DC Comics, or the alternative rock I’ll be hearing today (the sort of music also beloved by the college pals who I saw at my fifteen-year reunion that spring) — it’s definitely America.
But where was America headed in late 2006? Find out next week, in the pivotal second-to-last Retro-Journal entry!